When I Drink

“Okay, mijo, make the number three with your fingers and hold them together.” My grandfather’s hard, gruff voice could cause a nine-year-old to quiver. “Place your fingers at the bottom of the glass, like this,” he guides my hand to do what he’s describing. The familiar smell of Old Spice and tobacco bookmarks this moment into my memory. “Pour whiskey into the glass; stop when you reach the top of your fingers. Add some ice. And some soda.” He takes a drink. He smacks his lips. He gives a satisfied smile. “Now you know how to mix a drink.”

I have a large extended family. A family that loves to eat, drink, dance, and party well past nightfall. And when the momentum of our gatherings moved late into the night, drink orders increased. As kids, my cousin Laura and I would play a game of pretend. We called it “restaurant.” We’d hang towels on our arms and carry trays in our hands.

“Grab me a beer,” someone would shout. “How ‘bout…(shaking the glass, sounds of ice indicating emptiness).” And off we’d go. Pulling off beer tabs and mixing drinks, mostly Jack and Cokes or Seven and Sevens.

Needless to say, I got real good at making these simple cocktails. And as I grew older I knew how to make them without the use of my fingers. By 16, I was no longer pretending. I could hold my own with my family.

***

It’s 2010 and I’m exploring the possibility of a priestly vocation. I live in Chicago and I’ve reached out to the Jesuits. I’ve been invited to attend a July 4th cookout at Loyola Chicago. Because I don’t know Jesuits very well I was told this is a great way to begin making myself familiar. Sounds perfectly legit. I start to get nervous.

I’m a bashful person, but once I warm up, I can be a social butterfly. The easiest way for me to move from shy to butterfly is to imbibe. So when I arrive, I locate the table with all the alcohol. I’m hoping for Jack and Coke or Seven and Seven. But, there’s only Canadian Club and Sprite. It’ll have to do. I mix. I take a swig. I feel less tense. I gulp what’s left. With a deep breath I exhale away the edge and mix another. Now I can sip and socialize.

I have a few of these drinks throughout the evening. More than a few. And I’m talking and laughing. All those insecure thoughts that run through my head are muted:

You are out of your league.

You don’t belong here.

No one likes you.

Luckily I know how to hold myself in proper decorum after having consumed several glasses of liquid courage. I scrunch my eyes, furrow my brow, and deliberately nod to make myself appear focused. I even make audible sounds like, “mhm” and “yes” and “oh,” to punctuate this effect. And just to be sure I’m balanced, I stand with my feet shoulder width apart, or find gentle support from a wall or table, especially when holding an overpoured rocks glass of whiskey soda.

I drink to let go of my timidity. When I’m restrained I remain quiet, observant, passive in my participation. Thanks to Canadian Club and Sprite at this July 4th celebration – crowded with strangers – I’m uninhibited. I’m no longer reticent in how I participate in conversations. I’m actively engaging discussions. On this particular festive day I achieve my goal.

***

Prior to my Jesuit life I managed where I went and who I met. Self-doubt, deficient self-confidence, and anxiety lacked ample opportunity to reveal themselves. But if they did I never felt compelled to acknowledge them. Choosing to rely on the dependable drinks of my family I could pretend my way through anything. Exactly as I did on that particular 4th of July.

Now I do things I would never independently choose to do – like return to school to study philosophy. And it seems as if I attend large social events constantly. All of it an invitation to step out of my comfort zone. I meet these experiences with enthusiasm and joy, but the fervor I feel clashes with an intense disquiet. So I mix some familial drinks and cope. Which isn’t healthy. And mixing insecurities with whiskey has occasionally roused friction between me and people I love. The fun I found in drinking is diminishing.

To pray about my consumption of alcohol is to wrestle with deep unresolved pain and hurt. I no longer want a crutch in self-perceived uncomfortable situations. Through therapy and a stable prayer life I have grown, but there remains more work to be done. After some 20 years of drinking it’s a little sobering to face the reality I may need a change. Perhaps it’s time to stop. Perhaps it’s time to discover new ways to have fun. Perhaps it’s time to grow up. No matter how this self-examination unfolds, it is clear God walks with me. No more pretending. It’s time to mix a new recipe for being me.

This article by Damian Torres-Botello, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


A Message of Hope in the Desert of Fear

Being a news junkie today is to be hit daily by an avalanche of bad news, a lot of it sensationalistic. News of mass shootings, deportations of the parents of young children, and the rise in hateful speech – so casually spewed – often overwhelm me. That is not to say that I am unaware of the good going on. I just wish there were more of it.

This is why I was refreshed by the tone and message of a pastoral letter issued last week by Bishop Mark Seitz of the diocese of El Paso, Texas. He addresses the situation of migrants and refugees in his border city, separated from its sister city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by the Rio Grande. Rather than just lament the suffering, poverty, and violence that brings migrants to the USA, or dwell on the ways that fear of round-ups and deportation migrants face in the current political climate, he speaks a word of hope to all people caught up in these realities.

The title of the bishop’s letter, Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away, comes from Isaiah 51:11, which tells of the final joyful entry of the dispossessed and exploited in Jerusalem. It’s a message of God’s promise of salvation being fulfilled for his beloved suffering people. He goes on to connect the literal desert in which El Paso is located—in which many migrants die trying to cross—and the metaphorical desert of fear and marginalization migrants are facing today, with Isaiah 35:7-10, which prophesies that the desert will turn to springs and burning sands to pools of water.

This is not a head-in-the-clouds letter, however. El Paso has a history that resonates with these scriptures and this vision of hope – and the bishop stays grounded in that history. The bishop recounts that the area is the ancient home of several indigenous groups, then a long list of migrants have come in turn—first the Spanish, then from the Republic of Texas, the young United States, Ireland, China, refugees from the Mexican Revolution, escapees of the Cristero War, and now those fleeing Mexican and Central American drug lords and gangs. The city’s ability to welcome and absorb each group has created the integrated shared culture that freely spans the border.

Echoing Pope Francis’ constant exhortation to build bridges, Bishop Seitz blames no particular group for the current mess. Starting from what is common—a shared agreement that our immigration system is broken—he proposes a vision of reform that upholds both national security and the right of people to migrate when life becomes untenable at home. This is not a new message. The US bishops have been advocating comprehensive immigration reform for many years, and Congress has continually failed to act. This pastoral letter, however, takes the matter from the level of policy and principle and roots it in contextual spiritual discernment that is incumbent upon each person and the community at large.

He names three sequential steps: (1) encounter, (2) conversion, and (3) compassion. El Paso has been and continues to be a place of encounter between people of different backgrounds. In an encounter with others, approached with openness and the belief that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, God is revealed. This leads us to conversion, because we encounter God in the other and are challenged and changed. Conversion then motivates us to do things and to do them differently – with Christ-like compassion. More than a pastoral approach to a problem, Bishop Seitz offers a model for unity of the Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, which we manifest and pray for in every Sunday Eucharist.

Bishop Seitz is connecting many dots that we often fail to: linking worship, the web of relationships, Catholic teaching, public policies, and collective action. The message is clearly focused on what can unite rather than divide, build bridges rather than walls, encounter rather than isolation. This message of reconciliation is so unusual and refreshing to me in the United States of 2017.  I’d like to shout it out from the rooftops: Sorrow and Mourning Flee!

This article by Brent Otto, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.



Millions Marching: From Loneliness to Communion

A few years ago I found myself in an airport terminal with time to spare before boarding my flight. Ambling among the gates, I stopped to peruse a shelf of paperbacks until The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan caught my eye. Keegan delivered an address by the same name at her graduation from Yale in 2012; she died tragically five days later in a car crash. I stood there in Hudson News and read something from Keegan’s title essay that has remained with me: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I flipped through the collection of essays, moved for this young woman, her insight, her honesty, her death. I returned the book to the shelf of paperbacks and headed to my gate.  I was traveling alone, but I felt less lonely for having encountered Marina Keegan.

On Saturday, millions of people around the globe joined in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. and its sister marches. The march of more than 60,000 that I attended in Atlanta was among the most joyful events I can recall. From the packed train cars on the way to the march to the packed train cars home, a spirit of gentleness, strength, and fierce beauty abounded. Women and men high-fived and hugged police officers, who high-fived and hugged back. Wheelchairs and baby carriages were pushed with care and deference, marchers laughed and smiled easily between unwavering calls for justice and equality across our society.

Without question, the inauguration of Donald Trump as president was the catalyst for these marches. The marches, though, surpassed opposition to a leader, or a policy, or a political party. These marches may have started with people standing together against something, but they became about standing together. Period. Millions of us experienced the opposite of loneliness last Saturday. It was communion – a sudden awareness of living in a web of relationships of solidarity and care – and it gave birth to hope. Whenever we feel the opposite of loneliness, we are given the chance to hope.

Everyone needs this communion. Its alternative is isolation, and in isolation there is only despair. We isolate ourselves in many ways: through the wrongs that we commit and the wrongs that we don’t speak out against. Through belief that we have been abandoned by God and by those around us. By failing to see that we are capable of relationships, that the world needs us, our gifts, and our participation in the whole web of things. Perhaps especially, we isolate ourselves through our own uncompromising rigidity.

As a person unreasonably privileged by our society, I can almost always opt into things or stand back in judgment of them without fear of personal consequence. Sadly, I exercise the option of judgment all the time. Unless I know that the march will turn out a certain way, I won’t attend. Unless I agree with everything it’s about, I conscientiously object. If I don’t totally understand or control my surroundings, I take my proverbial toys and go home. I’ve done it countless times.

And yet the invitation remains – even for the privileged like me – not to be alone. To choose hope. To move boldly from the dry sand of isolation into the waters of communion. On Saturday I found out, as millions of others did, that the water is fine. In fact, rather than losing ourselves in this ocean of communion, we found ourselves in hope.

Marina Keegan put her finger on the thing that each of us needs, wise well beyond her 22 years. The opposite of loneliness is communion and it’s what I want in life, too. I don’t just want it for myself; when I taste this communion, I want to invite other people in. I don’t want to harbor hate, or prejudice, or judgment anymore. I don’t want to hold unreasonable power at the expense of those who welcomed me to march alongside them on Saturday, and those who have been marching for generations. And so I will continue to act, and I will invite others to do the same.

I had my deepest hope confirmed this weekend. None of us has to be alone. Women all around the globe, throngs of beautifully diverse people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion – richly human people – were saying the same thing to one another, including the people to whom society gives power, like me: let go of judgment, hate, exclusion, isolation and despair. Grab a sign and jump in. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the only thing there is. Believe me: the water’s fine.

This article by Steve Nicholson, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.

 

 


The Wounded Church: Pro-Life and Social Justice Catholics Remain Divided

If there has been one overused line in the past few weeks, it’s the trope: “The election taught us…”

We didn’t need this election to teach us that our country is polarized or that there is no “Catholic vote.” As commentators have said for years, political polarization shapes the Catholic electorate as much as the general electorate: there is no “Catholic vote,” but rather a “conservative Catholic vote” and a “liberal Catholic vote.”

For decades, the US Church electorate has been divided between “pro-life” and “social justice” camps. For “pro-life” Catholics, abortion defines their political participation, because abortion touches upon the key issue of respect for life. “Social justice” Catholics are interested in a broad range of issues stemming from their commitment to protecting the human person against violations of their rights.

Stated thusly, the two camps seem to have a great deal in common. But pro-life and social justice Catholics tend to be distinguished not just by the policies they emphasize, but by their partisan preferences. Pro-life Catholics have found a home in the GOP, and social justice Catholics tend to be Democrats. The two groups, in other words, have allowed themselves to be defined by our two-party system.

There is no question that the two parties have divvied up the Catholic vote, as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego noted recently:

“The central issues of Catholic social teaching that our society faces at the present moment really bifurcate the partisan divide in our nation,” said McElroy. “The Democratic Party emphasizes certain of those teachings and embodies them more fully, and the Republican Party embodies others. Because political leaders are forced into those partisan molds, particularly during partisan campaigns, they often don’t reflect the spectrum of Catholic social teaching to a great degree.”

This division was starkly illustrated by the platforms of the vice-presidential candidates. While they were both strongly influenced by Catholicism, it seemed to be their political ideologies that determined which teachings of the Church they did – and did not – embrace.

A common argument for distinguishing the two sets of issues is to treat opposition to abortion as a non-negotiable principle, and to see most policy issues related to social justice as negotiable applications of principles.

The trouble is, such arguments tend to sharply divide principles from applications, as though principles were Platonic abstractions floating in the ether with no purchase on reality, and the applications mere observations with little theoretical foundation. It then becomes hard to see how our practice and theory mutually influence one another.

But it has always been the Catholic tradition that political reflection sits squarely between theory and practice. As the Jesuit Social Research Institute notes, Catholic Social Teaching has to be both “organic and systematic,” so as to take stock of “social realities, ethical principles, and application of those principles to current circumstances.”

So what do we gain from accepting the balkanization of the U.S. Church?

Pragmatically, pro-life and social justice interest groups deprive themselves of key allies when they don’t see their causes as mutually related.

Intellectually, both “sides” deprive themselves of the full significance of their own arguments when they treat their causes as isolated policy positions.

Most importantly, treating life and social justice issues as separate has wounded the US Church. Reconciliation between the life and social justice movements needs to be a high priority for the Church in the coming years. In the months to come, most Americans will likely go back to ignoring politics. Yet much rides on keeping citizens engaged beyond  “the tired quadrennial debate about whom we can vote for.” Catholics must hold a Trump presidency to its espoused pro-life values, and work towards long-term reconciliation, not short-term goals.

Taking the long view, the Catholic Church cannot depend upon the parties as a credible engine for turning our deepest faith commitments into policy. The parties have gotten us into this mess and are unlikely to get us out of it. Catholics and all people of good will must become better at articulating the basis for what we believe and how it can translate into a better life for all peoples. This will require pulling away from political modes of thought and recovering yet again what it means to be Christian in the first place.

Indeed, when I wrote about being Catholic and Democrat or Catholic and Republican this past summer, the ensuing debate between our readers revealed the misunderstanding, pain and sadly even hate between the two camps. Reconciliation between pro-life and social-justice Catholics will not be easy. It is a long process that requires building trust, becoming open to criticism, and even being willing to criticize ourselves in the pursuit of love-guided justice. That road will not be easy, but it is more necessary than ever to walk down it.

Yes, there are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. But at a time when politics is such a mess, we must pull away from ideological attachments and see ourselves as Catholics. And we must do this not to deny but to affirm the nobility and necessity of politics.

This article by Bill McCormick, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


Real Parents

You’re not my real parents.

I said that to them at least once in my life. I followed the comment by running away from home, a slammed door followed by a short jaunt down Lola Drive with my blankee tied up on a yard stick and filled with GI Joe action figures (essential to survival). Five houses down, I realized my mistake and headed back. I pulled up a chair at the dinner table and ate a delicious meal that my parents had provided. They forgave me and loved me through the ordeal, just like “real” parents do.

I’m fairly sure every adopted kid has thought or said the same thing to their parents. It’s still a little confusing, after all, knowing that the people who raised me aren’t the people who made me. By ‘made,’ of course, I mean ‘had sex,’ and then one of them dealt with me explicitly for the next nine months. And both of them (biological mom and dad), after having made me, have probably dealt with the reality of their flesh and blood out there in the world, far removed from them for important, challenging reasons.

***

Simone Biles and I have at least three things in common – we were/are both gymnasts, we are Catholic, and we are adopted. People tend to understand the gymnast and the Catholic thing – sports and faith. Easy. But the adopted thing? Whose kid is this really?

A few days ago, Al Trautwig made (and, to his credit, later apologized for) an awkward, if not offensive, comment about the Olympic champion gymnast and her parentage.  “They may be mom and dad, but they are NOT her parents,” Al tweeted.

Then, who are they?

***

From what I’ve read, Simone’s biological mother Shannon struggled with a drug addiction that left her unable to care for her four children. Shannon’s father Roland (Simone’s biological grandfather) and his wife Nellie took charge, eventually adopting Simone and her little sister. Simone was four years old.

Now 19, Simone has seen Ronald and Nellie looking on from the stands for the entirety of her gymnastics career, which has just recently produced Olympic gold. Ronald and Nellie have driven Simone to early morning workouts, provided an education, fed her, clothed her, cheered her on in her greatest successes and held her close when she lost, or was injured, or was tired and wanted to quit. They gave her faith. They raised her. They are her parents. 1

Unless we want to think of parents in some other way. But I don’t think we can. Not really. The gift of life that parents provide doesn’t end when the child is just out of the womb. The gift extends well beyond first moments and into the flashes of life that parents provide their children each and every day. Parents who stick around for that are real parents. Who love without concern of being loved. Who step up when the kid needs it. Who fly halfway around the world to cheer their kid on. Who watch their daughter win Olympic gold.

It’s not always easy, and sometimes we end up with parents different from the ones who ‘made’ us. But let’s not think that biological connection is the only thing that makes a parent real.

-//-

(1) Imagine telling Joseph that he wasn’t Jesus’ father. Imagine telling Joseph that after all those years wiping baby Jesus’ butt, holding him during bouts with the stomach flu, working to put food on the table, teaching him to pray, to work hard, to pick up after himself, to be a good man and a good Jew, he wasn’t really Jesus’ father. The Christian tradition holds that Joseph is the foster father to Jesus, but I don’t think a qualifier is necessary. Joseph did just what real fathers do: he was there for everything until he couldn’t be there anymore.

This article by Eric Immel, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


Prayer During Tragedy

Events in our national life are often sadly familiar. That is certainly true of the Orlando shootings this past weekend. Mass violence. Contentious claims about Islam and domestic terrorism. The nation briefly rallying in solidarity. Prayers, anguish, and calls for change. Probable failure to address the root causes. An almost inevitable repetition in the near future.

What is also becoming familiar, however, is a certain reaction to this reaction, especially the prayer. Within hours of the attack, I saw memes on Facebook like the phrase “Pray for America” with the “Pray” crossed out and the words “Policy Change” written beneath.

This is not a wholly new phenomenon. “Prayer shaming” was a prominent element of the reaction to the San Bernardino shootings in December 2015. Of all the things to capture our national attention in the wake of disaster, it was prayer and its efficacy. Read More